James Clay // Film Critic
TORONTO – There has never been anything quite like THE LIGHTHOUSE. Robert Eggers’ highly anticipated follow-up to THE VVITCH operates on another planet. The writer-director made a hedonistic journey caught somewhere in the middle of GUMMO and THE ODD COUPLE. It is a beautifully rendered film that presented in 1.19 to 1 aspect ratio. Cinematographer Jarin Blaschke pulls you further into the unique experience by capturing the images in black and white. The chalky aesthetic seeps through every frame, and it is beautifully static. Many audiences are going to be utterly shocked at the lengths the two leading actors, Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe, are pushed. They have a loathsome dynamic. However, those who can get on Eggers’ level will be hypnotized by this eccentric experiment.
THE LIGHTHOUSE rarely, if ever, depends on plotting. It functions in tiny anecdotes that bleed together and make for a perplexing experience. By design, Eggers melts the definition of structure in his film. There’s a level of control to his work that could go haywire at any moment.
In the story, Thomas Wake (Dafoe) and Ephraim Winslow (Pattinson) are two guys sequestered from the world on a lighthouse that seemingly lives outside of time and mind. Winslow comes to be the aid of Wake for what is supposed to be four weeks of back-breaking work around the seashores. Wake is a gassy old sailor, farting with reckless abandon talking down to Winslow by calling him lad, and being overall a criminal to the definition of hygiene. The two don’t speak much at first, and Dafoe’s near parodic impression of a sailor revels in delight as he unintelligibly rambles on with parables of the sea.
Eggers must have pushed these actors to high levels of discomfort to wind up with the vulnerability they achieve. Either way, there’s a level of confidence the actors must have in Eggers’ vision, or they’re just fearless. Pattinson, who especially has grown to be the most fascinating actor working since his performance in 2017’s GOOD TIME. There’s a mania in his eyes that simmers until the film’s climax. From the first frame there’s a dark tone that’s sustained throughout the movie, yet it’s totally unpredictable.
The two men grapple for power with braggadocios and dishonest stories about their past, each trying to best each other with increasingly absurd jokes. These guys are stuck together with little reason to exist other than to cast aspersions onto the other with heaping scoop of bitchiness. Despite the two guys displaying their prowess at every moment, they’re both small men who act childish. It’s as if Eggers and his brother Max Eggers (who co-wrote the screenplay) were working on some anarchic therapeutic exercises disguised as an art film.
Living in a world that becomes more claustrophobic as the 109-minute runtime trudges forward, this is a hallucinatory space to occupy. The two characters’ residence becomes an outright trash pile filled with bodily fluids from nights of boozing. Their routine is the same, drink the rum (and sometimes gasoline), laugh, dance, fight, repeat that levies question of level of homoeroticism that accompanies their veiled machismo. There are secrets to be told about THE LIGHTHOUSE, and there are directions the film takes that don’t quite make sense upon first viewing. There’s a lot to unpack and discover in what is arguably the strangest film of this year.
If anything, THE LIGHTHOUSE makes an excellent double feature with Harmony Korine’s underrated comedy THE BEACH BUM. Both films are an unapologetic depiction of how repulsive people can be, and there’s no defending that behavior. But watching it unfold under the safety of cinema will be endlessly appealing.
THE LIGHTHOUSE screened at the Toronto International Film Festival. Encore screenings will be held on September 7 and 8. More information on the screenings can be found at tiff.net. A24 will release the film on October 18 in select markets. It will expand in the following weeks.